April 6, 2013

Gym Yoga: An Unpretentious Practice. ~ Laura Crandall


I’ve been practicing yoga for over a dozen years now, with a few different teachers.

Though the teachers have changed, I’m lucky enough to be still practicing with some of the same students I started out with; one of my regular mat mates has practiced near me for 10 years.

I’ve always practiced in studios, shalas—whatever you want to call them—and I’m primarily a Mysore-style practitioner who steers clear of led classes. I’ve had periods of time where I practiced almost exclusively at home.

In general, I like a style of practice where I do my own thing, without an instructor leading the way. Right now, I have a teacher who operates his morning class this way, and I spend three or four mornings a week there.

In October, I joined a gym.

I did this largely to use the hot tub on a winter’s night while I wait to chauffeur my teen cellist back home. After a short spin on the elliptical, some handstand practice and some back bends, I’d drop into the hot tub with an international, multilingual clientele. Sitting in the tub, my eyes stinging from the bleach fog, I’d marvel at the blend of bubbles and languages, and the assortment of flip-flops and shower shoes on the deck.

A minimum attendance of one day per week justifies the cost, so when my cellist didn’t have rehearsal a couple of weeks in a row, I went to the gym for the elliptical/some yoga/hot tub the first week and took a gym-yoga class there the next.

It was a strange class, taught by the conventionally-named Colleen, who did a fine job. I was intrigued by this class. The whole scene was different than my yoga world, and so were the people. This seemed like a good social science experiment, so I checked the schedules at all the related gyms within a 15 mile radius of my house to find my next gym-yoga experience.

It’s cold in the gym, and I don’t like that, so I layered up much more than I ordinarily would for yoga.

Gym yoga is refreshing because the participants are so unpretentious in their clothing—ugly sweats, plain old cotton t-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers. They wear their sneakers all the way into the room and leave them by their mat.

This is perhaps the most shocking element of gym yoga. As every traditionally-trained yogi knows, the yoga space is a sacred space: one is not to wear one’s filthy shoes into the sacred space, for they have stepped in the muck of dogs and the spit of strangers.

But gym yogis are unburdened by this yoga rule and placidly amble in, unaware of their footwear crime, even stepping on their own personal sacred mat space with their saliva-drenched, muck-encrusted shoes. Gary Null once gave an admirable tirade on alternative radio in which he railed against indoor-shoe-wearers so hard, it seemed a shame to waste such vitriol on the bland goal of a sanitary home environment.

As you probably know, the gym is littered with mirrors. Not so, the yoga studio, where one is expected to use only their special powers, and not their sense of sight, to check their alignment—unless you are in an Iyengar studio, where alignment is key.

Here is some news: I have zero sense of where my body is in space and have no way of knowing what it is doing. When I look in these mirrors at the gym during the yoga or Pilates class—yes, I did some Pilates, too, which was even weirder—I have trouble picking out which person is me. I’ve taken to wearing a brightly-colored shirt so that I can identify myself and rein in my errant body parts.

Studio yoga instructors have their own language, which is not based in reality or on English. It is a passive, suggestion-based melange of poorly-pronounced Sanskrit and pop-psychology wisdom.

Studio instructors will ask you to take a shape if that feels right to you. A shape is something a shape-shifter takes, and shape-shifting makes me think of science fiction and Ray Bradbury, and that story about the person with no bones and suddenly I have what my pop-psych studio instructor would call monkey mind, as my mind jumps from thought to thought like a little monkey from branch to branch.

Well, you started it.

Gym yoga instructors, mercifully, use English. I appreciate this because it gives me a rest from eye-rolling. I don’t have to silently fume about pompous language or submissive invitations to place my hand underneath my foot if that feels right today. Order me around! Tell me what to do! That’s why I’m here. I can laze around and do what feels right for under $17 on my own.

There is no sanskrit chanting in the gym, only grunting.

At studio yoga, there is a lot of chanting and in some forms such as Kundalini, you will chant during your asana practice. Introverts beware.

Last year, I frequented a hot yoga studio downtown once a week, because it was hot inside and winter outside. I disliked much that went along with that scene, most notably that one instructor’s inspirational tales at the beginning of class always came from a movie or a television show.

The day she unraveled a piece of wisdom from Kung Fu Panda was the last day I went to her class.

The other thing that happened at that place was yell-chanting—I swear it was a competition to see who could yell Om the loudest. I’ve been through different levels of devotion with my yoga and in my more rabid period, I did a lot of chanting. So I understand chanting, what it is, and what it does and I used to love it. But mostly I loved it because I love to sing, and chanting is like singing (see: chanteuse). Nowadays, I just want to do some yoga without all that tinsel of chanting, Lululemon, mudras and moon days (days off of practice due to the stages of the moon).

There have been no sun salutations at gym yoga—there was the threat of a sun salutation last week, but it never materialized.

I’m glad about that because after so many years of sun salutations, I’m pretty bored with them. Let’s skip those.

Two weeks ago, I went to a class led by a woman who was between 65 and 70. Right on, old lady teacher. She was good. She was coherent, had a nice sequence, and she did this really bizarre move that I haven’t seen anywhere else. It made me wonder if it came from the Kundalini world because it combined vocalization with movement—I have no personal experience of Kundalini.

She called them Ha-Ra-Oms—or at least that was how she pronounced it.

The move had three components and each component had its own syllable: it was arms out—saying ha, a hand clap over the head—saying ra, and then bend the knees and hit the floor with the hands—saying om.

Everyone in the room took to this with enthusiasm, and I have to say it warmed me up quickly. My only regret was that I could never take this move into my current studio and do it because I would feel too foolish.

And it was then that I realized why gym yoga appealed to me, and the real reason I was enjoying it: I could drop my own judgements and pretenses that I had about myself and how I moved.

I could go into this cold gym with mirrors on the walls and heavy bags lined up on the edges and sit down next to people I would never find in a studio class: a trio of old Asian men, a middle-aged overweight African-American man, a few young people, some grannies, and even a giant bearded dude who wears shorts and a football jersey and looks like he’ll break when we twist. I love being in this variety of people.

I also love that I can roll my mat out into this anonymity and be a person in a gym just trying out some moves called yoga. I don’t need special clothes, or a special language, a secret handshake, or expert alignment.

Because I don’t need anything special, and I don’t require the teacher to be an expert, I have none of the expectations I do when I go to a yoga studio. Without those expectations, I can enjoy whatever unfolds during class time—even references to football—right down to the round of applause the students give the teacher at the end.

I’ll be at gym yoga at least once a week.



Laura is a habitual practitioner and reformed Ashtangi. She takes the yoga as it comes, and listens to her body, which creaks differently every day.




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Assist Ed: Olivia Gray/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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